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Today in history… first view of a comedy masterpiece

12:00am | & Lifestyle

What were you doing 50 years ago today? If you were lucky enough to own a television set, you might have been tuning in to the first episode of a new BBC sitcom, called “Dad’s Army”.

First screened on July 31st, 1968, it would run to 80 episodes spanning nine series over nine years and become one of the best-loved TV comedies of all time.

Originally to be called “The Fighting Tigers”, the idea for Dad’s Army came from jobbing actor and budding writer Jimmy Perry and was loosely based on his own experiences during the Second World War. Too young to join the regular armed forces, at 17 he joined the nearest battalion of the Local Defence Volunteers, later to become the Home Guard. Perry would later admit that the character of Private Pike was largely based on himself, while he also gained real-life inspiration for other Dad’s Army characters from his time in the Home Guard.

Perry was playing a bit-part in a sitcom produced by David Croft when he showed him a draft script for “The Fighting Tigers”. Croft was impressed and passed it to the BBC’s head of comedy, Michael Mills, who commissioned the first series. Mills also teamed Perry with the more experienced Croft as co-writer and producer, since he was unsure of Perry’s abilities. It was the start of a long and productive partnership responsible for a string of successful sitcoms such as “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”, “Hi-de-Hi!” and “You Rang, M’Lord?”

Several elements of Perry’s original draft were refined in partnership with Croft and with input from Mills, including changing the names of several key characters, setting it in the fictional south coast town of Walmington-on-Sea, and changing its name to Dad’s Army. When an early episode was privately screened to members of the public to gauge audience reaction prior to broadcast, the majority of the audience thought it was very poor.

Luckily the production crew had faith in the project and tucked the report away in the bottom of Croft’s bulging in-tray. He only became aware of it several months later, after the first series had been broadcast to great critical acclaim and a second series hastily commissioned.

Key to the success of Dad’s Army was the inspired casting of its ensemble of actors. Several cast members would become synonymous with their characters, which became their best-known roles in long and illustrious careers on stage and screen. Examples include Arthur Lowe and the pompous and bumbling Captain Mainwaring, John Le Mesurier as Sgt Wilson, Clive Dunn as Lance Corporal Jones, John Laurie as Private Frazer and Ian Lavender as Private Pike.

Perry had originally written a ‘spiv’ character for himself, but approved of James Beck’s casting in the role of Private Walker. Sadly, despite being one of the younger cast members, Beck died from pancreatitis in 1973, aged just 44 and during filming for series six. He was the only member of the original main cast not to stay with Dad’s Army for its complete run from 1968 to 1977.

Other memorable characters included Arnold Ridley as the mild-mannered Private Godfrey, Frank Williams as the Rev. Farthing, Edward Sinclair as his verger Mr Yeatman, and Bill Pertwee and ARP Chief Warden Hodges, the local greengrocer and a thorn in the side to Captain Mainwaring. Another element of the series which would become instantly recognisable was its theme song, “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?”, the lyrics written by Jimmy Perry with music by Derek Taverner and sung by legendary music hall performer Bud Flanagan.

The first episode, filmed in black and white and screened at 6-15pm half-a-century ago today, was called “The Man and the Hour”. Set in 1940, with the threat of an imminent Nazi invasion looming over Britain, it sets the scene of how bank manager Mr Mainwaring is given permission to set up a local LDV unit, appointing himself Captain, his chief clerk as his Sergeant and junior cashier as one of his first Privates.

With a motley collection of elderly men from the town soon swelling the ranks, the new unit eagerly awaits the arrival of its uniforms and weapons, which turn out to be armbands and pepper. Even so, they resolve to stand firm against Hitler at all costs… and the rest, as they say, is history.

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